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Iran's Openness To Direct Nuclear Talks With U.S. Provokes Backlash At Home


A mural of Iran’s national flag on a street in Tehran earlier this month. Some hard-liners in the country have warned the government not to repeat the mistakes of the past by negotiating with the United States.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei banned any direct talks with the United States in 2018, soon after then-U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew Washington from the 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed crippling sanctions against Tehran.

But earlier this month, Khamenei seemed to give tacit approval for possible direct talks with the United States, saying that negotiating with the “enemy” did not mean “surrendering.”

Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on January 24 appeared to confirm Tehran’s openness to face-to-face talks. He said Iran would do so if it meant reaching "good agreement” to salvage the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.

Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, echoed Amir-Abdollahian’s comments by leaving the door open for direct negotiations with Washington.

“Contact with the American delegation in Vienna has been through informal written exchanges, and there was no need, and will be no need, for more contact, so far,” Shamkhani said on Twitter on January 25. “This communication method can only be replaced by other methods when a good agreement is available."

Multiple rounds of indirect talks between Tehran and Washington in the Austrian capital, Vienna, to revive the deal have been marred by delays and disputes. Washington has repeatedly said it is ready to hold direct talks with Iranian officials, saying it would be “more productive.”

Since the nuclear talks resumed in Vienna in early December after a five-month hiatus, the negotiations have been protracted and inconclusive.
Since the nuclear talks resumed in Vienna in early December after a five-month hiatus, the negotiations have been protracted and inconclusive.

But the suggestion of direct talks with Washington has provoked a backlash from some hard-liners in Iran, where many officials refer to the United States as “the Great Satan” and warn that it cannot be trusted.

In a statement published on January 26, a group of clerics and students in the holy Shi’ite city of Qom, a center of power in Iran, blasted Amir-Abdollahian’s “strange” comments. The statement said the minister had “upset” the supporters of “the establishment and the revolution.”

It is a blessed phenomenon that the country’s officials have finally [realized] the need for direct negotiations and prefer people’s interests over revolutionary gesture."
-- Former lawmaker Ali Motahari

The statement warned Amir-Abdollahian not to repeat the “naivety” and “mistakes” of former President Hassan Rohani, a relative moderate, and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who negotiated the nuclear deal with the United States. Under the agreement, Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.

The statement said the "revolutionary government" of ultraconservative President Ebrahim Raisi "was not supposed to repeat the same mistakes.”

“Unfortunately, we are surprised to see that you are following the same wrong path, and you’re officially playing ball with the United States," it said.

“You are expected to correct this irrational statement as soon as possible,” the statement added, suggesting that parliament should act.

Unfortunately, we are surprised to see that you are following the same wrong path, and you’re officially playing ball with the United States."
-- Clerics and students in Qom

The ultra-hard-line Iranian daily Kayhan also blasted Amir-Abdollahian. On January 26, its front page read: “Direct negotiations with the U.S. is the enemy’s trick to escape lifting sanctions.”

Kayhan said the foreign minister’s comments could give the impression that Tehran has backed down, insisting that the “the Islamic republic has the upper hand in the negotiations.”

Ali Vaez, the director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, said it was not clear if Tehran has decided to negotiate directly with the United States.

“It appears that the Iranian establishment is reaching the conclusion that indirect talks are not the solution, but it is not clear if they have made a decision and are willing to take this step now or whether they’re preparing the ground for such a step in the future,” Vaez said in an interview with the BBC.

Inside Iran, others were supportive of Amir-Abdollahian’s comments, saying direct talks with the United States were long overdue.

The Iranian flag waves in front of the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
The Iranian flag waves in front of the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

“It is a blessed phenomenon that the country’s officials have finally [realized] the need for direct negotiations and prefer people’s interests over revolutionary gesture,” former lawmaker Ali Motahari said on Twitter on January 26.

Amid the backlash, Amir-Abdollahian briefed lawmakers on the nuclear talks on January 26. He said there has so far been no direct contact with U.S. negotiators. The minister was quoted as saying that some progress had been made in the talks.

Iran is currently negotiating directly with the nuclear deal's other signatories: Germany, France, Britain, China, and Russia.

Trump’s decision to withdraw Washington from the nuclear deal and reimpose harsh sanctions devastated the Iranian economy. Tehran responded by gradually exceeding the limits imposed by the pact on its nuclear activities.

After assuming office in January 2020, President Joe Biden said he was willing to rejoin the pact if Iran returned to full compliance. But negotiations between Tehran and world powers that started in April in Vienna were put on hold in June after the Islamic republic elected Raisi as president.

Since the talks resumed in early December after a five-month hiatus, the negotiations have been protracted and inconclusive.

Mikhail Ulyanov, the Russian envoy at the talks, said on January 24 that direct talks between Tehran and Washington at an “advanced stage” of the negotiations could be “useful.”

Last month, the U.S. envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, said that U.S. negotiators are willing to meet their Iranian counterparts “at any time and any place.”

“We think it’s far superior to indirect negotiations. And we’re dealing with something this complex, with so much mistrust, with so much potential for misunderstanding,” Malley said in an interview with Al-Jazeera.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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